Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Born 1942

Ballygunge, Kolkata, India

Relevant Work "Can the Subaltern Speak?"


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biography Edit

  • Born in Calcutta, India in 1942.
  • Literary theorist, Indian scholar, and feminist critic.
  • In 2007 she became the first woman of color to be awarded the title of University Professor at Columbia University.
  • Earned her MA in Comparative Literature from Cornell University.
  • Earned 11 honorary doctorates and in 2013 received the Padma Bhushan award by the Indian government.

"Can the Subaltern Speak?"Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Published in 1988, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" by Gayatri Spivak looks into how Western cultures consider other cultures. Spivak's main focus presents ethical issues in exploring different cultures base on "universal" concepts and frameworks. Spivak critiques western theorists and writers, such as Marx to Foucault, Deleuze, and Derrida. Spivak's overall claim is that Western academia is produced to support Western economical agendas and that intelligence (or knowledge) is used in the interest of those who develop it. She sees knowledge like a commodity that is exported from the West to third world countries for financial and other types of gain.

Key Words and Terms Edit

Alterities - people, events, or ideas that are radically "other" to the dominant world view (NATC 2110).

Deconstruction - "according to Spivak, 'is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced'" (NATC 2110).

Epistemic Violence - the forcible replacement of one structure of beliefs with another; borrowed from Michel Foucault's use of the word episteme, or, the underlying structure of knowledge and beliefs during a historical period (NATC 2115, footnote 2).

Essentialism - "Is the view that for any specific entity there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function.[1] In Western thought the concept is found in the work of Plato and Aristotle. Platonic idealism is the earliest known theory of how all things and concepts have an essential reality behind them (an "Idea" or "Form"), an essence that makes those things and concepts what they are. Aristotle's Categories proposes that all objects are the objects they are by virtue of their substance, that the substance makes the object what it is. The essential qualities of an object, so George Lakoff summarizes Aristotle's highly influential view, are "those properties that make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing".[2] This view is contrasted with non-essentialism, which states that, for any given kind of entity, there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess" (Wikipedia).

Subaltern - Populations which are socially, politically and geographically outside the hegemonic power structure of the colony and the colonial homeland. Originates from a "British military term referring to a low-ranking, subordinate officer...In postcolonial theory designates the colonized to include voiceless groups within colonies or former colonies, such as women, migrants, and the sub proletariat" (Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 395-396).

Heterogeneous - different in kind; unlike; incongruous
Spivak Globe

Key Quotations Edit

"She asks whether such work can succeed. Can - with or without the intervention of well-intentioned intellectuals - the 'subaltern' speak? Her blunt answer is no" (NACT 2111).

"The 'subaltern' always stands in an ambiguous relation to power - subordinate to it but never fully consenting to its rule, never adopting the dominant point of view or vocabulary as expressive of its own identity" (2111).

"...when most of the resides in the West, why should the least powerful of those caught up in globalization be responsible for halting its advance" (2111).

"There is no true or pure other; instead, the other always already exists in relation to the discourse that would name it as other" (2112).

"Like the stranger whose name is 'trouble,' she shakes things up and gets them moving. No topic is ever quite the same or quite so easy after Spivak has come through town" (2113).

"This is not to describe 'the way things really were' or to privilege the narrative of history as imperialism as the best version of history. It is, rather, to continue the account of how one explanation and narrative of this history was established as the normative one" (2115).

"The question is not of female participation in insurgency, or the ground rules of sexual division of labor, for both of which there is 'evidence.' It is, rather, that, both as object of colonialist historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant" (2120).

"our efforts to give the subaltern a voice in history will be doubly open to the dangers run by Freud's discourse. It is in acknowledgment of these dangers rather than as solution to a problem that i put together the sentence "White men are saving brown women from brown men," (2122).

"I was so unnerved by this failure of communication that, in the first version of this text, I wrote, in the accents of passionate lament: the subaltern cannot speak! It was an inadvisable remark" (2123).

" When a line of communication is established between a member of subaltern groups and the circuits of citizenship or institutionality, the subaltern has been inserted into the long road to hegemony " (2125).

Discussion Edit

The "Other" Edit

Spivak takes issue with the fact that research, in a sense, is always colonial. In defining the study of the "other" and the "over there" and gaining knowledge to be brought back "here," i.e., white men talking to other white men about colored men and women. Spivak also examines Western representation of the "other" and questions it's legitimacy, theorizing that the institutions who present knowledge on the "other" are unaware of postcolonial or feminist inquiries. This is due to the fact that critical thinking about the "other" is related to hegemonic vocabulary and Spivak views it as similar to feminist writers having to follow the patriarchal rules for academic writing.

Furthermore, Spivak reacts against the romanticizing the "other," specifically the idea that "third world people must lead the fight against multinational global capitalism" (NATC 2111). Doing so would only perpetuate colonialism and its basic violence: non-Europeans are important only if they follow Western scripts (NATC 2111).

The Subaltern Speaks Edit

Spivak presents a dense critique in which she poses the question: "What is at stake when we insist that the subaltern speaks?” (NATC 2124). This excellently articulated question, though so simple, is one that requires the reader to mull over and wonder about the answer as well. Spivak spends a lot of time discussing the first question. One can see the complexity of the issue, and she discusses how epistemic violence creates the Other. Her example, on page 2116, about the “Minute on Indian Education,” by Macaulay, demonstrates how the creation of a “class” that administers the British system embodies epistemic violence, by seeking to silently displace people, “the general nonspecialist, nonacademic population across the class spectrum” (2116), who were not previously Othered into a place of Otherness. Once Othered, or transformed into the subaltern, they become enlisted into a hegemonic participation in their Otherness through social and disciplinary inscription.

In order to move towards solving the construct of “subaltern,” Spivak argues that we have to undergo a process of unlearning in which we have “to articulate our participation in that formation--by measuring silences” (2122). Additionally, it is necessary to acknowledge the dangers of trying to give the subaltern a voice, in that we could fall into the narrative of the white man being a savior, the brown woman a victim, and the brown man the savage; the SVS metaphor (Makau Mutua’s “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights, 2001). In falling into this sort of narrative, a scapegoat is created, which seems to be one of the problems in attempting to create a voice for the subaltern because it supports the continuance of subaltern-ing. In answering Spivak’s question, “what is at stake when we insist the subaltern speaks,” what is at stake is that we are, in fact, still speaking for the subaltern, a paradox that still requires inquiry and comprehension. Additionally, we feed into the SVS metaphor because we focus on who is to blame, once again pushing away from allowing the subaltern to speak by speaking as if we understand their Otherness as a first-person experience--one that we cannot have since we are not subaltern. This is not to say that we cannot help with deconstructing this narrative, but it is a dangerous thing to approach when one is not meta-cognitively aware of the ways in which to participate and advocate for the Subaltern and their voices.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

  • Spivak's work has often been criticized for being entirely non-prescriptive. Spivak offers no solutions to the problems of the other and the subaltern that describes.
  • "A persistent complaint against Spivak, aside from her difficult style, is that she leaves us no place to stand. Her political pronouncements are unambiguous, but she steadfastly refuses to advocate solutions beyond an openness to the other that can appear vague, undiscriminating, and indeed theatrical. To continually dismantle one's own assumptions seems itself an act of privilege, a deconstructionist's luxury that few can afford, especially those who have to make decisions here and now. As an antidote to complacency, however, Spivak's work is exemplary. She never lets anyone, including herself, smugly assume that he or she is on the side of the angels. Her restless probing is unsettling but invigorating. Like the stranger whose name is "trouble," she shakes things up and gets them moving. No topic is ever quite the same or quite so easy after Spivak has come through town" (2113)
  • Selected as 2012 Kyoto Prize winner in the field of thought and ethics.

Related Works Edit

  • Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." The Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Ed. Peter Simon. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. 1335-361. Print.
  • Busia, Abena. "Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female." Cultural Critique, no. 14, winter 1989-1990, pp. 81-104.
  • Fanon, Frantz. "The Wretched of the Earth: from on National Culture." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010: 1440.
  • Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. 1964.
  • Freud, Sigmund. Multiple works.
  • Kristeva, Julia. "Revolution in Poetic Language." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010: 2071.
  • Medovoi, Leerom, et al. "Can the Subaltern Vote?" Socialist Review, Vol. 20, no. 3, July-September 1990), pp. 133-149.
  • Edward W. Said. Orientalism, 1978. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010, pp1861- 88
  • Mutua, Makau. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights." 
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987).  
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Outside in the Teaching Machine (1993).  
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999).  
  • Harasym, Sarah (editor). The Post-Colonial Critics: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues (1990).  
  • Young, Robert J. White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990; 2d ed., 2004).  

References Edit

"Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak." Wikipedia. Accessed on 5 November 2016.

"Padma Bhushan." Wikipedia. Accessed on 5 November 2016. Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.